At the moment, in Hereford, it is raining. I am sat at the kitchen table with a mug of tea, listening to the murmur of voices through the wall. Outside a pigeon frets over the wet grass. And at the other end of the internet is Georgie.
“So what should I tell people?” I ask her. She has arrived in Freetown safely, her bags have finally caught up with her and yesterday she began work.
“Wow,” she replies, the email pinging back a few minutes later, “That is a big question.”
Her flight had left a little behind schedule on Friday afternoon and she had finally made it to Freetown in the early hours of Saturday. The organisation put her up in one of the few nice hotels in the country where, she reports, expats still swim in the chlorinated pool. From there she was moved to a nice house in a protected compound on the seafront which also houses her offices. She’s housed opposite the run of restaurants we used to guiltily frequent when we would go to Freetown – attractive beach-front diners with good food and comfy furniture, nestled between neon-lit Casinos and upmarket bars. Now’s not the time to talk about that strange neo-colonial vibe, but it was always a far cry from life in Makeni. I had wondered how those business would survive without the expat population. Imagined they might have become the go-to places for the international emergency response workers.
“They’re gone.” Georgie says, “Gas leak one night, the whole row burnt to the ground.” Wooden buildings, no fire brigade. It makes me sad to think of it. I recall one of our first nights in Freetown, watching a fire rage on the opposite side of the bay, the whole coast seemingly aflame.
So what should I tell people?
“I think the main message from me is that it is sad! In such a short time things are so quiet and half dead- the expat feel that Freetown was a different world is gone already – it is not there. Now the [nice hotel] is a different world and houses the Freetown that we knew. All the US Embassay staff, USAID are there in their hiking boots, army combat trousers and logo’d t-shirts. Unicef were meeting there, it is the meeting room.
They have jazz bands and set up for brunch and the few Lebanese remaining were there with their kids in the pool.
We went to get food yesterday and had to go to 5 different places before we could get anything. No one is serving and these are not shack foods like Yeane’s [our go-to place in Makeni] these are Freetown restaurants!!!
The place is so sad, George [one of the superb trainers Georgie worked with previously] had holes in his shirt and he was over so quickly as soon as I talked about work. I have never seen him move so fast. Or be so prompt. He said that people were stealing as a coping mechanism! If I have money I will be safe.
It has changed so much. There is no work and not much going on, the place is dead. People look scared. Very, very scared. Nobody touches each other and where you used to squeeze past people on tight streets to avoid being pushed into traffic now everyone gives everyone a very wide birth. Even the children know not to touch each other. We drove past a woman lying on the pavement, everyone just stepping around her, afraid to get close. There is a number to call for an ambulance but they are so busy it takes three or four days to come, so people have the bodies of their family members in the house and they know they cannot move them.”
In Hereford, the fridge clicks and makes a low gurgling noise. Washing rolls in the machine with a dull whump and outside rain leaks steadily from a flat sky. And far away Georgie sits in the hot thick air of Africa, sits down at her desk and little by little, step by step, begins her share of the work to make the world a better place.